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Interview with: Rudolph Vara
Date: January 16, 1984
Archive Number: OH 317
I: This is a January 16, 1984 oral history interview with Mr. Rudolph Vara of 1146 Majestic. Mr. Vara, I’d like to begin at the beginning here and find out how did you come to Houston? Begin with how you came to Houston.
RV: Well, I came to Houston because I was born and raised in San Antonio. Times were very hard in San Antonio. I wanted to help my parents a little more than what I was able to by being a busboy in San Antonio. That’s what I did—was a busboy. I’d make a little bit of money. I always had money in my pocket, and I was able to go out here and there, but it was not enough money. I wanted to own a car, I wanted to have better clothes, and I knew that I had an uncle out here in Baytown that had a good job with Humble Oil. They told me it was so hard to get in because, really, they wouldn’t take any Mexicans. So I decided to make a trip I’ll never forget. It was probably 1934, because I had just become 21 and I knew that I had seen in San Antonio my first poll tax. I was going to go out and vote, but I was not for the favorite person and I almost got jailed. That was way back in San Antonio that if you weren’t with a favorite party they would come over and put you in jail all day Saturday, which were elections from 7:00am to 7:00pm. So I got a good scare out of that. I never wanted to be in jail. As much as I had been a shoe shine boy and had been around the rough gangs, I had always kept my nose clean, so onto Houston. I came here about 1934.
I: When were you born?
RV: September 19, 1912.
I: So, you were a young man when you got here—a youngster.
RV: Well, I still feel like I’m a young man.
I: 1912 and 1934—you were 22 years old when you came.
RV: Youth, at that time at 22, for some reason or the other, in work, yes, I guess we were pretty well matured, but in being able to roam around as we see some of these people—young at 14, 15, 16 years old—no, we were more, at that time, I think, it probably it helped throughout whole America that when a young man left his home the same as a young lady, especially among my people, it was after marriage. Way back in the old days, prior to—well, around the ‘30s or prior to that time—there were very few people that left home. No one was moving from here to California or from California to New York or this and that place. Generally—especially among the people of Mexican descendants—traditionally lived in the same neighborhoods. You got married you probably moved a street or two away from where you lived. You never left town.
I: 03:50.3 Had your family been from San Antonio originally? Where were they from originally?
RV: Well, I guess originally, for way back many years, in fact, my grandparents on my mother’s side came in from (Castro Villa?). My mother on her father’s side is (Castro?), and I think it was through Henry Castro—so the story my mother tells me—that my grandfather came from. She told me a very sad story, especially after the Alamo, he was persecuted, discriminated, hated, and everything. They were forced to move across the Rio Grande where my mother was born. My father’s ancestors were from San Antonio. That’s the Varas and the Varaes, a very old family that dates way back, I have found out, to times that they call the (__??)—the (Espana?). They received grants; they received donors, and this and that. But going back and coming over to Houston, I found it more reasonable to get in that travel bureau because it brought me out here for—I think it was—about a dollar and a half.
I: Explain that travel bureau. What was that?
RV: Well, the travel bureau was where if you were a person travelling from one city to the other, and you would share your expenses with passengers or people that wanted to go to another town like I wanted to come to Houston. If you were coming in, 3 or 4 of us would get together with you and share the expenses. That was not supposed to be an organized group, but it was nothing else but an organized group that had an offer right there. But they claimed that they were travelers, but really they were professional chauffeurs just like the ones on the Greyhound or Trailways.
I: Were they people of Mexican descent?
RV: No, in this case this one that I came in—no—I don’t know. They had English names like Smith, Jones, or some other name. We travelled here—I think it was a Model A—you know—and had one chauffeur, two in front, and probably three in the back. There was about six. They wanted to get their money’s worth. I learned right then the old place that—the old Bering-Cortes hardware used to be. I’ll never forget the highest steps I had ever seen before. From there I found out that a little ways I could take a bus down to the—take the trolley, which was over here on McCarty and close to Market Street. I could take it from there to Bay Tunnel, where I went to Baytown and saw my uncle. He asked me what I was doing. I was looking for a job. I managed to get me a job and work for Brown and Root for some time. All we were doing was hard times. They’d make you dig a hole there big enough that—the day was 8 hours—they’d make you dig it for4 hours and then they’d give you 4 more hours to back fill it again. It was one of the first projects that Roosevelt started in order to give people work around the areas. Very soon I found a job with Humble Oil thanks to my uncle.
I: What was he doing there?
RV: My Uncle was one of the first persons that came over to Baytown by invitation, so he told me, by Governor Sterling, at that time, and Mr. Fitzsimmons—the outstanding people in the building of the refinery. They wanted to bring him because he would help them bring in some more people from Mexico. They needed people that could work hard and help start this refinery—people that could live in tents, people that could withstand the hard times. He helped them greatly, so greatly that they gave him a good break. He was in charge of all of those tents, so they tell me, and all the money he collected monthly was all his too. He made a lot of friends. He was a very nice, likable person. I guess he had such good pull because at that time they weren’t hiring any people, much less Mexicans. He was able to get me and a lot of people—told me to go on somewhere south, you’re not going to get a job here, and I did. That’s where I put my LULAC to work.
I: How do you mean? What do you mean by that?
RV: Well, I had tried to—by coming here in San Antonio—I had been involved in LULAC from, I guess, ’30 or ’31. They started telling us about LULAC over in the old neighborly service building located on Deco Street. At that time it was Lakeview, and this place was managed by Ms. Tafolla, a wonderful, wonderful, beautiful lady who really dedicated all her time to the youth and tried to straighten us out. Her husband was one of the founders of LULAC, Mr. James Tafolla, Sr. He was an elderly man, very full of wisdom, very good speaker, and when he spoke he always based himself very much in the bible. But he wasn’t the type of person who preached just about the bible, he quoted from the bible then he made his own speech about—like he would say, “Quiero decirle ustedes (el majillo?) LULAC.” —I want to tell you about the LULAC evangelist.” So he would go from there. He was one of the founders. Canales was a very outstanding, distinguished attorney who had served under General Pershing as his interpreter way back in the days when they had to go down to South America for some of the problems that we had over there just as we have today. He was a very distinguished attorney. We had—I guess this is the man that did a lot of the financing, a very humble person, Mauro Machado. Mauro Machado was really the great spirit of LULAC. Because between the two other fellows, sometimes they were at odds or whatever the case may be, he always seemed to be a peacemaker because he spoke very little, but when he did, he really had something to say. I always had a great love and admiration for Machado because he was a working man. He used to work for a printing company. He seemed to bet paid fairly well.
I: 12:27.2 Did you know these gentlemen all in San Antonio?
RV: Yes, sir.
I: Before you came to Houston?
RV: Before I came to Houston, I was already involved with them. I was already involved with them. I was involved with them because I think that when the first—when was the beer legalized—in ’33?
I: Something like that—’33 or ’34.
RV: I think it was in ’33 or ’34 I became more acquainted with LULAC for the first boycott we gave to a certain beer company that would not hire any Mexicans. They wouldn’t hire anyone of Mexican descent. So the LULAC—that was one of the first big tests they had. We went around asking the merchants not to buy that kind of beer, not to sell that kind of beer, let the people know not to buy that kind of beer. Of course, it wasn’t open. It was still a crime for you to go out and protest, so we did it the best way we could. One of the greatest things came out of that. They hired two of the greatest organizers we’ve ever had in LULAC, in the beginning. One of them was my good and beloved friend who passed away already, Rudy Cruz. He was a young man. He was the son of Captain Cruz of the police department in San Antonio. He and I were more or less—well, we liked each other. Anyway, the other one was an elder person, Max Garcia. He was an elder person. These two fellows were hired by this certain company—well, make no bones about it. Let’s say the name, Pearl Brewing. At that time they were not hiring any Mexicans at all. Well, maybe they’d hire someone to sweep the streets or wash the bottles or something like that, but nothing with responsibility. So they hired these two fellows and that was the greatest blessing to LULAC. Because for some reason or the other, I think that the people from Pearl figured that they could get a greater benefit by letting these fellows go out to the different places throughout the state of Texas to promote the Pearl beer, but at every place they went they promoted a new LULAC council. They made all the affairs, and of course we went out then—those of us at that time that liked to drink beer. There was always plenty of beer. These two people were really the great columns of LULAC, these two fellows, because they had all the expenses paid anyway. Mauro Machado, as I said before, one of his sons is a very distinguished district judge that told me some time ago, “I didn’t know my father was working so hard for something like this and that I would benefit.” He’s the man I like because he sacrificed his home. He was not at home hardly at all. He was—and I know because since I had my job over at Humble I was able to have a little money and I would go and join them in what they call the flying squadron, I think it was. It was an old Model A or a Model T. We’d get to go in the conventions in Laredo or to install a new council. Several times I went to San Angelo or El Paso. Then I organized some with him to come over to Baytown. Baytown was one of the greatest events that we made in the organization of the LULAC council. We went down to the conventions in Corpus and, of course, there was the one that owned that ( __??), the transportation was (Jacobo Rodriguez?). He was a very good speaker. He passed away already. One of our distinguished and good advisors was the great jurist Canales—Judge Canales. Then, of course, we managed to—through LULAC, we were able to get some people to the immigration department because at that time the immigration department—one was a Mexican. He was an illegal and some of our own natives right here were being persecuted. But I think there was—in 1932, if I remember well—when LULAC came to Houston. LULAC came to Houston, I would say, in 1932. It was born right there around the vicinity—I might be able to show you the place if we go by there later on—76th and Avenue L. It was an old garage. I never attended a meeting there, but I think it was in ’33, or probably ’34 to be more exact, I was already protesting about the discrimination we had over in Baytown. I didn’t think it was right. Can we mention names?
I: Sure, yes, sir. I would appreciate it.
RV: 18:36.5 Humble Oil and Refinery, which today I say have been some of our greatest supporters and our greatest friends, but way back at that time—let’s just call it a misunderstanding of races. This all came about—the (__??) that the Mexicans made it the Alamo. But really, it shouldn’t have been taken that way because was it not the Mexicans that raised in San Antonio first against the tyranny of Santa Anna? Was not some of the Mexicans from San Antonio—the outstanding San Antonio Mexicans—because these people were Mexican citizens and at that time this great state belonged to Mexico. They rose against the tyranny of Santa Anna. They were also persecuted in every respect. In fact, I believe that by what my grandparents used to tell me, Santa Anna came out here for no other reason than to punish a lot of the misbehaving Mexicans, which he probably did, but then he also had this war in his hands because Sam Houston had already organized. He was so daring and—you know—he was called, at that time, the Napoleon of the West. So he decided to go out and meet Sam Houston, but he was defeated. You know the rest of the story. But anyway, after the Alamo, what happened—we became persecuted in every way. San Antonio, whether it was the celebration or the fall of the Alamo—what they call the fiestas—no people of Mexican descent could be a part of those committees, much less have any of our daughters or any of our people run for queen. So this was all LULAC work. Upon seeing, also, what happened around the valley—and this was because of discrimination—how a lot of the—if I may put it this way—Mexicans or Mexican Americans or Mexican descendents were slaughtered. Make no bones about it. It’s true. That’s a true story. For no other reason than they were accused of having either raped someone or robbed someone. But there was no justice because they had not been brought before the law. They had just been killed. That’s what really inspired LULAC to get started. Now LULAC was in circulation way back since 1918 or so. This is something that I heard through the lips of the people, because I knew all the founders. I would dare say that I have met all the founders of LULAC. This gentleman, this great jurist, Canales, upon seeing some deaths that had occurred somewhere down in the valley, he had enough guts he went before the governor of the state of Texas—before the governor of the state of Texas—and was empowered enough—and I think maybe some rangers came over and helped him stop that slaughtering around there. But then we saw how the people had lost everything. I’m talking about the Mexican people. We couldn’t educate our children. As much as we talk about the public schools, there was very few that finished the primary. There was not enough money to send some of ours to college. Of course, the LULAC started with the idea and went through to Austin where they got their charter. The understanding was that LULAC would not be a political organization. It would be a social and civic organization, especially civic. I’m very proud of the ritual we have there at our meetings. Our flag must be there, our prayers, and I feel that LULAC taught a lot about that we are first-class citizens. I don’t feel that we are minority. A minority, to me, is to be a second-class citizen. Anyway, LULAC taught the fundamental principles that our country needed our services to go forward. I feel that I was very much brainwashed by LULAC because when the time came, I went forward, same as my brother that I will show you. I think they gave us a new lease on life or started a new page of our history. They tried to make friendships, forget the past, and move forward.
I: 24:38.2 You said that LULAC, in a way, began in 1918. Why do you say that even though it was founded in ’29, as you know, but why do you say it began in 1918?
RV: In 1918 some of the fellows that served in the First World War also saw the same things that all the veterans from the Second World War saw. They got together—and I wish I could think of the name right now. I will get you the name. You may be able to talk to him on the phone and let him tell you what I’m saying. Anyway, they came in, and by that time we had become more English-minded, if I may put it that way. In other words, we had learned more about the English language because, at that time, it was nothing but Spanish. We had learned how to see the better ways of becoming, say, a full-fledged American citizen. But under the circumstances at that time, being a second-class citizen, we couldn’t. So anyway, it’s told right there. It’s told right there by the protests they made of the discrimination. They got started with the idea. Now they did not have the name of LULAC in mind. But later on, the Sons of America organized by Mr. Tafolla was a great inspiration of the starting of the LULAC. Now this was a youth group, so the LULAC became an adult group born on February 28 or 29, 1929 in Corpus Christie, where delegations met from San Antonio, from around the valley, Laredo, and Corpus. I guess there might have been some from El Paso, but I doubt it. They founded the LULAC there.
I: 26:53.5 Now when you got here in ’34, did you come into contact with LULACs from Houston?
RV: Yes, sir. Upon seeing what was discrimination, I went back to San Antonio and I think it was Mauro Machado gave me the name and address of (Elias Ramirez??) and we became very good friends. We had to raise funds because we were going to organize a LULAC council in Baytown sponsored by the Houston council, and we needed some entertainment. Mr. Ramirez was such a wonderful person. His whole family was singers, dancers, musicians, and he would come over, charge us nothing, and helped us raise funds so when we had the big LULAC dedication of the Baytown council we had enough money. We didn’t have to pay any rent because the place belonged to—I tell you this much, the people were very nice at Humble. They would give us a place for free. We didn’t have to pay for the recreation, so it was dedicated. But going back to why, Humble Oil—I’m not saying just Humble Oil. It happened with St. Clair, it happened with Shell, it happened with all the other refineries on the discrimination issue. They all had discrimination. What was discrimination? Discrimination was that if you were a Mexican you had to be a laborer no matter how much education you had. If you were a Mexican you had to drink from a fountain that was painted brown. The black was reserved for the blacks and the white for the whites.
I: All the different fountains were painted different colors?
RV: You had the restrooms, also, brown for Mexican and the white. This was more of a pattern of the infamous Crow Law.
I: Jim Crow.
RV: 39:17.1 Jim Crow Law—it was a pattern of the infamous Jim Crow Law, which in a way was not meant for us, but we became victims. We became victims. I was soon elected as the representative of the workers there in Baytown because I was able to speak English. I was daring. I went before the authorities there and told them about different discriminations. There were wonderful people. I would like to remember a Mr. Tommy Moore. I would like to remember Mr. Pruitt. They knew it was not right. There were a lot of times they really cooperated as much as they could, but it was beyond their control. Now, this was not so much that was just the executives of the refinery. This was more the employees in a sort of a Ku Klux Klan group gotten together. Now I’m not saying it was all of them. There were some very, very, fine, wonderful people there—some very religious, dedicated people that knew what was going on, didn’t like it, but they couldn’t do anything. If you went out to help any of the groups at that time you were also considered as a radical, and nobody wanted to—but anyway, we protested. After we organized a LULAC council and we renovated some things. Coming back to—in fact, some would say I was more active with the Houston council than I was with the Baytown council.
I: When did you all organize your Baytown council?
RV: The Baytown council was organized, if I remember well, probably in 1935. I became very much involved with the Houston council because I knew they were going to have the national convention here in Houston. I think it was in 19—
I: 1937, I believe it was.
RV: 1937—in 1937 at the Rice Hotel. I was one of the delegates that came in from Baytown to the convention here in Houston.
I: Mr. Vara, let me interrupt you here and ask you a question. Who were some of the individuals involved in Council 60 when you first began to know it in 1934?
RV: 31:54 Elias Ramirez, Serrano, Mr—
(End of tape 01)
(Start tape 02)
RV: 00:07.4 I wish I could remember his first name. He was Quinonez. Quinonez was one of them. There was a very outstanding person, too, he had a drugstore and his name escapes me right now. There was Mr.—his name escapes me.
I: Did you know Mr. Mariano Hernandez? Did you know that individual?
RV: Mariano Hernandez?
RV: Mariano Hernandez?
I: How about a Mr. Felix De La Cerda?
RV: Oh, yes. I knew Mr. Felix De La Cerda. Yes, sir. He became—I’m glad you mentioned him. He became active somewhere around the convention when I first met him. He was a very outstanding and very distinguished person. He was not an attorney, but he was the type that we needed, because at that time we needed someone with connections at City Hall and the courthouse and he seemed to have very good connections. Another person that we must give a lot of credit to, because really they were outstanding and were the one who helped sponsor LULAC quite a good bit, was Morales—Felix Morales and Angie Morales. Of course, what happened to the LULAC council, after they got started—let’s see—I think this happened probably after the convention. Yes, after the convention. We made great headway. Really what we had going here—the first time a group of Mexican-American descendents in this lifetime had ever put up such a great convention in a very outstanding hotel. We were the heroes. I’ll never forget how much it cost me that day. I was still around here and some of these lady delegates wanted to go back home. They needed a taxi, and I don’t know how I got into it, but I bought them a taxi. Of course, I paid my last penny for that taxi, and I had to hitchhike back to Baytown. I’ll never forget it. Anyway, we had a very great event as sad as it was, because LULAC separated itself twofold. San Antonio had LULAC Council #1 and #2. Council #2 came up with the idea that they shouldn’t have any more than one council in any given city—LULAC council. The reason was, as much as LULAC is not supposed to be politics, they’re still politics. I think that at one of the events they had a misunderstanding, or whatever it was, and Tafolla was on one side, Perales was on the other side. They put up the resolution at the Rice Hotel. The resolution passed that they wouldn’t have any more than one council. So the council that Perales—Alonso Perales—was a member of was supposed to fold up, and he wouldn’t go out and join Council #2—him and Flores and several other people I would like to remember right now. So what happens? Perales and his group—may they rest in peace, because they always meant good, but sometimes these misunderstandings in life hurt us a lot. They organized their own—let’s see—League of Loyal Latin American Citizens. It did so much harm to both groups because it took a long time before we patched things together, and we are together now. We are together, but it did hurt LULAC quite a good bit.
I: 04:28.9 And that was a big issue here at the convention in ’37?
RV: Yeah, that was a big issue. Now, in that big issue I saw people, like the distinguished jurist, may he rest in peace, Judge Canales and several others with tears in their eyes. There was crying. There was crying out of the sadness of what had happened. But anyway, LULAC had to patch itself. It patched itself. Coming back to Houston, the convention was over. At that time the conventions lasted—they still do, I guess—from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. So we had 3 days of convention. I would like to also say that in the history of LULAC when we needed someone that would really understand our problems that would come to our aid, that would come to our meetings, and that would help our cause. We needed someone big in the state of Texas, like the governor. We’ve never had another one like the governor, and I’ll never forget James V. Allred. We used to call him (Spanish?). I knew him well. He would come over to our meetings. For some reason or another he took a liking to me, which I did of him too, because he came to our aid. He started giving us a little more recognition which we had never had before. We were hungry for recognition. And Governor Allred, may God bless his soul. He was probably the savior, or the one that injected a little more of that feeling that you’re an American, but you have to struggle for it. Well, early history will tell you what he did. He helped, more than anything else, to organize the Good Neighbor Policy, which already had been installed by President Roosevelt. He listened a little more to us, to our problems we had. I think he was probably one of the first to open up the doors for the Texas Employment Commission with highways—I mean—with jobs of responsibility, with recognition. Even if you say you were just a clerk over at the TEC, it was better than nothing at all.
I: Did he ever come to Houston? Did Allred ever come to Houston?
RV: Oh, yeah. If I’m not mistaken, I don’t know whether it was him—there was this time I think he came over to convention. But anyway, he did attend one of our conventions. Oh, yes. He’d come over to our LULAC 60 club meetings.
I: Oh, he did? He came?
RV: 07:38.2 Oh, yeah. He did just the same as another one that also came quite a lot to our meetings, Price Daniel.
I: Where did you—when you first got acquainted with Council 60, with Mr. Ramirez—where did they meet? Where were they meeting?
RV: They were meeting right on the corner of 74th and Navigation by the filling station that was owned at that time by Mr.—well, he was the son-in-law of (Elias Ramirez?). I can’t remember his name very well right now, but it started with a P—Parilla?
I: Was it in his house?
RV: In his office of his filling station.
I: I see.
RV: He had a little dingy room there that probably couldn’t hold—our meetings were between 10, 12—I doubt we ever had 20. We also had a very, very distinguished person that was active there—Quinonez. Quinonez was the president for some time same as Serrano, same as Mr. Ramirez. We had the lady that also was very active. I wish could think of the name of some of them, but—
I: When you became involved with LULAC Council 60 in ’34, what issues—what were the issues then that you all addressed?
RV: The issues that we addressed were, at that time, those of discrimination. One of the issues that really was in our front lines all the time was in reference to the birth certificate. Every time that someone was born, instead of saying American, it had to me that M for Mexican. The race was Mexican. We protested so strongly. That was one of them. I would say it was the priority—the number one. The number two was trying to find means and ways for helping our youth through college. We knew that we couldn’t do that unless we found better jobs. We were protesting around the refineries and other places to give us more recognition, to start giving the opportunity to some of our people as foremen or assistant foremen or high secretaries. A lot of the opportunities we did ask for. We wanted to go into some of the best halls that we had here, but a lot of them were closed to us. I don’t want to say they were completely closed because we were not—really—our case was not that of segregation that was on the books. There was an abuse of that segregation. We were being abused. There was no law whatsoever, whether it was the Jim Crow Law or anything, that mentioned that we have to be segregated, therefore that law didn’t apply to us, but that law was used to abuse us the same as they abused other people the way they so miserably did.
I: 11:48.3 You were among the first, then, to found the Baytown. How many people founded the Baytown LULAC Council?
RV: Well, one of them was (Louis Contrares??) and Mr. Torres—probably about 8 or 10. I’m laughing about something I just have to bring up. On one side we were fighting discrimination and on the other side we were also fighting our own people that were damning us for trying to be (__??). You follow what I mean?
RV: So we had two fights on our hands. I just started laughing because I couldn’t help what I’m going to tell you. I think it was about 1940—John Herrera, who always came up with some good ideas, he and I were good friends—probably about 1939 or so. He said, “Rudy, I have an idea. We’re LULACs. We should pull the word LULACs.” “What should we do?” “Well, we’re going to put a wreath at the San Jacinto monument.” Put a wreath at the San Jacinto monument?” I was more concerned, not scared. I don’t say I haven’t ever been scared in my life. I’m concerned if we go with a wreath over there the gringos over there, they don’t even let us go there, much less let us go there and place a wreath. I said, “I don’t know, John, but let’s try it.” So John went ahead—and I’m talking about John Herrera—he went ahead and made the right contacts with the right person who had always been a good sympathizer to us maybe because he was already hiring a good number of our people—whether they were dishwashers or whatever. I knew him personally—Jesse Jones—a great man. It was great. Jesse Jones liked it, so did the rest of the committee. And since Dr. Costanera, a very distinguished doctor, had been the historian—he was the historian for this monument. Dr. Costanera, whom I knew, in fact, I wish that I had listened to him. He wanted to take me to Austin and educate me there. Anyway, they talked to Dr. Costanera, “Great idea. Let’s get a wreath.” How are we going to pay for the wreath? We started a collection here and there. One of the hardest things was, at that time, when we—well, in a little while I’ll tell when the LULAC Council was stolen from Magnolia and taken to town, one of the hardest things was getting the dollar and a half for the place that we were meeting at the courthouse. $1.50—we had a hard time. But anyway, the idea is great. Let’s do it. Sure enough, we were welcomed. We were so proud of ourselves that the gringos got so close to us and we were just accepted. Beautiful. Great. I felt like a hero. I wish I had pictures. I meant to show you that picture. I have a picture. So our generous idea—and there was three of us that were sent to go—John Herrera, Ortiz—who is deceased—and I. And I think one of Johnny’s little boys was there. The achievement was greatly recognized. John spoke there and he spoke very clearly about our part we had taken. He got to be a tradition. I think it’s still taking place now. I felt like a hero. I felt great. But wait a minute. When I got back home to Baytown—(whistling noise)—I was a traitor. I was a traitor. “How could you do such a thing to go and place a wreath among those traitors over there?” I tell you, they wanted to stone me. For some weeks, or maybe months, I was a branded man. Really. They soon got over it. Those people were fine. I was a single man then. A lot of those people always opened their doors to me and I would go over to their homes and eat. They would invite me because usually I was their official interpreter, their Notary Public. I was a Notary Public. One other thing, too, at the beginning—and I was pretty wise about LULAC by this time—I knew that one of our duties was to buy the poll tax and use it. All of these movements that we see today, they were founded by no one else but LULAC.
I: 17:44.3 Now when you all started to get after the poll tax—getting people to buy the poll tax—did you all do this back in the ‘30s? When did that begin, really, with LULAC?
RV: With LULAC, it belonged with the same founders of LULAC prior—way back in the ‘20s.
I: So it was always a LULAC effort?
RV: Yeah, a LULAC effort. Of course the LULAC organization had not been recognized yet, but there was that LULAC effort of these leaders, these founders that, one thing is they had to get together and form the group. But going back to what I want to tell you, when I first moved to Baytown first thing was to buy poll tax. I was telling the other people, “Buy a poll tax? How can you buy a poll tax? They won’t sell you any.” So I went over to this fellow that was advertised and I asked him for a poll tax. I had my money in my hand. “Well, I have some I wish I could show you. What’s your name?” “Rudy Vara.” I’ve always felt, for some reason or the other, from my mother on down—my name of baptism is Rudolpho Varacastro. But then I became American and I just say I’m Rudy Vara. “Vara? What’s that? A Mexican name?” I said, “Well, I guess it is a Hispanic name.” “We don’t sell poll tax to Mexicans.” Just like that. I got a little tough there with him, but it didn’t do me any good. I figured if I go a little further, what would happen is they’d jail me. So I was very discouraged. I came over to see (Morena Morales??)—Ms. Morena Morales—from the radio station KLDL. I said, “Morena, they wouldn’t sell me pull tabs.” She said, “Why do you have to buy it from someone.” Now he turned out to be more mature than LULACs and knew more about it. He says, “You don’t have to buy it from no one. I can get you deputized, and you can sell them and make money.” I said, “Beautiful. How do I go about it?” So he took me to the office at the time, County Assessor and Collector Jim Glass. I think it was Jim Glass, if I remember well. He was the County Tax Assessor and Collector. That’s where I met Carl Smith a little later on. He became a very active fellow there—you know—he’s the tax assessor and collector and I’ve known him for some years. But anyway, here I go to Baytown. I take—I didn’t own a car. I’m waiting. I take the trolley, and I go back to Baytown. “Hey, you want to buy a poll tax?” “What do I want it for?” I’d say it to them in Spanish. “Yeah, but I’m not an American citizen.” “We sell to Mexican citizens, too. He had a cause there. Citizen or non citizen, this money was used for the support of the schools. So everyone that wanted to buy a poll tax—but you have to be sincere and raise your hand—and if you were an American citizen you’d vote. If you weren’t, there was this great fear that if you weren’t an American—it was pretty well respected. Nobody abused that. So I sold probably—I don’t know—maybe one or two books. I made some money because out of every poll tax I’d sell, I made 15 cents. I had never made that money. At least that was sort of making the expenses. I come back and turn in the money. They trusted you. You didn’t have to put no deposit or nothing. So they trusted you. I paid the money, and I got me to where I did that annually for some time. In fact, I did it so long and so much back in Houston, when we moved in, for a good number of years I had the championship, and then I got my wife to sell it and she was very highly honored here with a profit. She has—I don’t know where she has the trophy that was given to her. Anyway, we bought the poll tax.
I: 22:28.5 How did you get involved in the ’37 convention? What was the story behind that? How did it come to Houston, for one thing?
RV: Well, the delegates went over to Laredo or somewhere and brought the convention over to Houston. But before I tell you that, I’ve got to finish with the poll tax if we have the tie. Finally, we got the poll tax, but when we went to vote, we couldn’t vote. No Mexicans allowed to vote. That got a little rough. But I happened to know the judge there, the chief clerk, and he happened to know me. He always admired me and like me for my ways of showing him that I was an American. He said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Rudy. I’ll let you vote and this other gentleman here, but that’s all.” “Well, that’s better than nothing. Let’s vote. What the heck.” And we voted. One of these fellows, later on, he became for years and years the presiding judge of the same area, there. So I felt that we had broken the ice. The following year, got a little closer to him. I got into some of the English-speaking organizations, there. They got to know me, my sincerity. We got into Boy Scouts, PTA. Anything that was good; we got in there for our group. So all of this, I would say, was through LULAC, but who else could coerce me? Who else could induce me to do those good things, but the LULAC organization? I have always said that the LULAC organization has been, is, and will always be a great blessing to our people. But now you asked me how I got—this convention was born in 1936. I wish, but later on I can find out for you. It was brought to Houston from Laredo. Since I was a member of this council—I was a member of both councils—the council in Baytown and Houston—since I was a member here, we had the task of going out to organize Texas City, revive Galveston, Port Arthur, Beaumont, Port Lavaca—I think it was—all of those councils because we wanted to have a larger nucleus out here. When we met those other fellows coming from Laredo and that area there, we had a force of our own. Generally, the conventions—well, you do. You bring in your problems, you bring in your platform or whatever it is, but generally all conventions go for two things. Who is going to be the president? What is his platform? Where is the next convention city going to be? Of course, this one here became more exciting than that—what I already told you. That’s how I got to come to the national convention here in Houston because I was a delegate from the Baytown Council.
I: 26:04.5 So you were—were there other delegates from Baytown at that time?
RV: Yes. I think there was—they were allowed, I think, one delegate per every 10 members. I believe we had 3 delegates and 3 alternates.
I: Did you all try to run anybody for president at the convention from this area?
RV: Oh, yes. We tried to run this—you just mentioned the name—Felix De La Cerda. He was very, very outstanding and distinguished. By the way, his daughter was the principal at Felix Tijerina Middle School. That man was—I don’t know if he is still living. He was very well versed in LULAC, too.
I: But you all didn’t get him elected in ’37?
RV: No, sir. We did not get him elected. The one who got elected was, if I remember well—because he got to like me very much and he appointed me and he was from McAllen. He was a very distinguished attorney. I forget his name right now. Anyway, we got him elected and then got Salinas elected later on. I took a very important part in selecting some of them.
I: How many people came to that convention? Do you remember how many delegates, how big a crowd there was?
RV: I think it was probably about 60. I would probably say about 60.
I: 27:49.0 Sixty delegates?
RV: Yeah, about 60.
I: And you all had it there in the Rice Hotel?
RV: In the Rice Hotel. We had the convention in the Rice Hotel, then we had the conference and other affairs over in the old auditorium. Over in the old auditorium we had them. The conferences there at that time—we had a doctor there from University of Texas that would come over and tell us about tuberculosis. We had others that would come over and tell us about Boy Scouts, PTA, the different organizations we should become involved in. In the evening we would have the black Saturday-what they called the President’s Ball. So you see, by that time we were making a great headway. That’s why I say we were among the first ones to really have a very great outstanding banquet there at the Rice Hotel. I don’t think anyone else had had—you know—people of Mexican descent—a big banquet, a big pow-wow in such a luxurious hotel as was the Rice Hotel. And I feel that we broke the ice.
I: That was the first LULAC National Convention here in Houston?
RV: Yes, it was. We had another one in 19—I think we had about 2 or 3 more here in Houston.
I: Did you remember—just before that big convention there was a police brutality case over the killing of a Mexican citizen here in Houston. Do you remember anything about that? A man by the name of Elpidio Cortez was shot and killed and they had a trial about the officers. Do you remember anything about that at all?
RV: No, it doesn’t come to my mind. I sort of—something tells me I do, but I cannot—I know the one about the police officer way back in the 20s. The first Mexican-American police officer we had here that was killed out on Washington Avenue. Since then, we were forbidden, or the city of Houston or the police department, would not hire anymore Mexicans because they claimed that if they had a police officer another Mexican would come over and kill him. We were punished for a number of years up until probably 1940 or so, and, again, thanks to LULAC we had the first police officer after so many years and that was Raul Martinez today. Thanks to the efforts of LULAC, because we fought for a long time. I was one of those that several times who went to the chief of police back in the ‘30s asking—we were not demanding, just asking, for recognition to get a police officer. We never had one that would qualify until we had Raul Martinez, because they’d tell us we didn’t have one tall enough, with the education, and they were looking for someone of a whiter complexion. Raul Martinez fit all of them, and he became our very first after we had that incident with Cortez. But Cortez—I’m trying to think—
I: 31:35.7 It’s not important. What happened to LULAC Council 60 after the convention was over with. Didn’t it die out for a while, or something happened to it. It changed from Magnolia Park. I know that. What happened there?
RV: Well, they claimed that over here we were so slow, but I don’t think we were—well, a group of—
(End of tape 02)
(Start tape 03)
I: A group? What was that now?
RV: A group of members—LULAC members—from the same LULAC Council came over to our meeting and, before we knew it, they had a resolution to move the council downtown. They had the majority, so we moved downtown. In a way it was right because over here we were working and operating in an obscure neighborhood. But the thing is we weren’t paying any rent. So what happens? These fellows had already made arrangements, and I think, if I’m not mistaken, one of the first places was over in the courthouse.
I: Who was involved in that transfer? Who took it away, more or less, from Magnolia?
RV: I don’t know, but I don’t think I was there in that meeting. I was in Baytown at that time. They say that one of them was Johnny (Hoy?), who was a very distinguished attorney. Johnny (Hoy??) was of Mexican descent. He was a good friend of mine. Well, I hate to mention any more names because they would ask me prove it, but I understand he was one of them. Since he is so far away in Florida, he probably—besides that, I think that he was proud. Several times I heard him talk about it. He was a young man who became a very distinguished attorney. Later on, he moved to Florida. Anyway, I don’t think my good, beloved friend Johnny Herrera had anything to do with that. I don’t think that he—he could have been in LULAC by that time. But anyway, he became very active about—John Herrera—about ’38-’39.
I: Was Mr. Elias Ramirez—was he still active at that time?
RV: 02:16.8 Oh, yeah. He was active.
I: What did he think about it moving from Magnolia to—?
RV: Oh, they were angry all the time—him and Saldana and the rest of them. See, they were the bigwigs over here. Oh, they never got over it. They never got over it. They thought that there had been a crime that had been committed. I think it was for the good. We never had a place until Felix Tijerina came in. And thanks to Felix Tijerina, he got that home for us. Of course, we paid for it. We raised money, but he got it—he made it available for us. He gave us the opportunity. He backed us up and we got that LULAC home, which you’ve probably been there on Bagby Street?
I: Yes, sir. By the way, what was your—when did you first get to know Felix Tijerina?
RV: Oh, I think, if I’m not mistaken, I probably met him around convention time—just about that time.
I: Was he involved in that convention at all that you know of?
RV: I think he was. I think he was. He didn’t become a very good strong LULAC until later years, but I believe that he was involved in that convention. I don’t think he was as a delegate anymore than probably just as a member. I believe he was. The more I think about it, the more I think he was, because his sister was very active in all the affairs. I had an eye on her. She was there, I think. He was—like I said to you the other day, Felix Tijerina, who, of course, came in probably in the ‘50s or so, he was the one that really put LULAC on the map. By the map I mean he built it nationally. He started organizing councils from here to Chicago, from Chicago to New York, New York to Washington, over in Georgia, Detroit, different places. And the great thing about it, it was all at his own expense. He allowed himself so much from his own money. He organized LULAC in the sense that we had to be more businesslike. I don’t think any man has ever spent so much in LULAC—I doubt it—as Felix Tijerina did. He gave the money by the thousands, probably.
I: Did you—how long did you live in Baytown before moving to Houston?
RV: Oh, I lived there from that time until about 1940. I moved to Houston—well, from ’40-’45 I went to the service. In ’41 I got married. I would say my residence was here in Houston.
I: 05:51.9 You married a girl from Houston?
RV: From Port Arthur.
I: From Port Arthur.
RV: Yeah, from Port Arthur. I met—again—I would say I met my wife through LULAC. I had been elected as a delegate to go to the Conferencial Espescialis Mexicanas over in Port Arthur, and by that time I was already speaker. I could get before the microphone and express my opinion or talk about an issue or whatever it was. My wife was the one that first saw me before I even saw her. I got to meet her through her.
I: Was LULAC a part of that (__??)?
RV: Oh, yes. I was the official delegate. I was the official delegate to the (__??) from LULAC Council 60.
I: Did that last for very long?
RV: Well, yes. It started again in the ‘30s and probably until the ‘40s or ‘50s. Yeah, probably early ‘50s it died away. It was—we could have done more and better work. We just stayed formally and solidly with one organization—with LULAC. After all, what were they doing? The same LULAC work, but without as much pull or as solid as LULACs. We were doing it as American citizens. The others were more consulate work from the Mexican Council. That’s how they were sponsored. I wouldn’t say sponsored, but backed up, because I remember one time we went to—and that’s again in the ‘30s—we went to this banquet—I was a delegate from LULAC—over in Galveston. This priest—who was my very good friend—always together—he says, “Rudy, let’s sit down right here.” This lady comes by, “Don’t, no, no, no. That’s for the presidential group. You people can’t sit down. That’s for the presidential group.” “What presidential group?” That’s what this priest said. “Well, exactly—this and that. The honorees and the number one.” I said, “That’s why we left Mexico, because we didn’t like the ways over there. Over here it is a democracy and we are all equal.” “Rudy, let’s sit down here.” So this lady went over to the president of the group and told him about our not sitting down where we were supposed to. I overheard him say quietly, “Don’t bother them. Leave them alone, because if you do we’re going to have problems.” (laughs) So we got to sit down there. But they did a lot of good. Probably they did some of the work some of us LULACs couldn’t attract some of the other people because some of them didn’t want to belong to LULAC. So they wanted to belong to that group, fine. Sometimes you have two organizations. I think their survival wasn’t very long. In fact, with all the organizations that I have known without people, I think LULAC had one of the longest. Of course, then you have the GI Forum, another organization that’s pattern also was like LULAC. But LULAC had quite a good bit of history behind it and some of the battles we had—in fact, LULAC at first—we had delegations that went all the way straight to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I: 10:08.9 Back in the ‘30s, with LULAC Council 60 and the one in Baytown, did you all try to raise money for your organization?
RV: Oh, yes.
I: How did you do it? What were some of the functions you all had?
RV: One of them was—usually we tried to run someone for queen. We would either have a tamale dinner or we would have a picnic BBQ. We used to have great picnics over in Clear Lake. We had a heck of a time getting admitted, but we used to get in there. They had a big sign, “No Mexicans Allowed.” One of these days I’ll tell you another story about that. They had a big sign there, “No Mexicans Allowed.” But thanks to the commissioner, I guess Decker. I don’t know who the commissioner was who had become very friendly with us. They allowed us to use the park.
I: This was the commissioner of Baytown or the one in Houston?
RV: No, it’s the same one for Houston—the commissioner for this area.
I: I see. All the way to Clear Lake?
RV: Yes, it reaches all the way to Clear Lake down around Baytown down to North Houston. I think Fortino is the present commissioner, but I can’t remember who the commissioner was. So they gave us the opportunity, and there was a good fundraiser there. I think we were about the only ones that could go in there. They had that sign and it just—but we managed.
I: What was your job at Humble while you were out there?
RV: Well, my job was I started as a laborer, and then because I could read blueprints, I was able to read the blueprints of the structural steel for this fellow that would lay out the structural steel. In other words, I read the blueprints and they called for so many rods of—whether it be 1/8, a quarter of an inch, one inch, whatever it was, different bands and the way you had to tie it and all of that. I would sort it out for them. I did good because—the other one—I was the official interpreter. Whenever one of these people couldn’t speak English, I would go to the office and be their interpreter. That was two, but when I didn’t have a job in the structural steel I’d go back to digging ditches. It’s justified—not so much. Maybe I did not deserve it myself. Maybe I couldn’t qualify for a better job, but that didn’t mean that out of a hundred people working there, someone else couldn’t do some kind of a better job. I feel that I probably could, but then the company said I wasn’t qualified. But when you have a hundred people and no one is qualified, who is? But that was one of those misunderstandings that I would say came about because of the wrong interpretation of history—the wrong interpretation about Texas history—which is being clarified. I think that my forefathers took just as important part, if not more, in the freedom of this great state of Texas as some of the others. Speaking as a LULAC, I think that I don’t condemn it. I think that it was a great thing. Just imagine, if that hadn’t happened and it still was in the control of a foreign power, I’d probably be roaming around Oklahoma or some other area, so I think it was a great lesson.
RV: 14:26.4 I may hurt someone’s feelings, but the truth is the truth. The truth is the truth, and I think that we lost our boat for not becoming more aggressive right there and then, because we just—at the first term we had—what was it? Our assistant president, Lorenzo Zavala—
RV: Vice-president. That’s the only authentic Mexican we ever had win. We never got that close to the governorship in all of these years. Of course, in politics I would dare say, even though we weren’t supposed to play politics, but LULAC was amongst some of the very first ones.
I: Even back in the ‘30s here in Houston? You all were still political then? You seemed to be political?
RV: Yes, there was. There was already—like, Mr. Ramirez way back in the ‘30s and ‘20s, he was already politically dedicated. Zavala and some of the others, they were already—
I: One more I want to ask you—I want to ask you one more question. We’ve gone longer than I thought we should have, but it’s been so interesting. Mr. Vara, I want to ask you one more thing. Describe Mr. Elias Ramirez for me.
RV: 15:52.7 Elias Ramirez was a gentleman of sort of a ivory-like complexion. Not like that, but a complexion that is sort of brownish, Indian complexion.
I: Sort of a bronze?
RV: A bronze, Indian complexion—bronze. He was tall. He was probably about 6 foot 2 inches. He had long arms. He was very thin. He had a forehead that reached way out here, bald. He always kept himself neatly shaved, neatly dressed, not the type with a new suit and tie all the time, but—you know—in a neat manner. He had his suit and his tie. He was a great poet. He could write poetry beautifully. He had more of a feeling of a full-blooded Indian. He spoke English, I would say, fairly well. He spent a lot of his time giving advice. As a speaker, he was very eloquent. He was very eloquent as a speaker. Somehow he would always come out with some type of an example. For example, about voting, this was one very much his. He said, “Why should you vote?” “It’s very important.” He says—let me tell you this in the form of a story. One day, there was this one man walking down the street with his dog. He was walking his dog. For some reason or the other, the dog like the fellow it was going right in front of. It took a big hunk of his leg. Well, his case came to court. So when they presented the court, the defense attorney for the dog, he says, “Your honor, I’m ready to start, but before we go any further, let’s find out what rights this fellow has to be here in this court to ask for his rights. He has no rights whatsoever.” The judge says, “Wait a minute. You can’t classify that he has no rights whatsoever. Prove it.” “You see this dog, here?” They had the dog over there. “You see he has a tag? He’s paying his rights to walk on the street. Ask that man if he has a poll tax. If he has no poll tax, he has no rights.” So you see, that set a good example, even though you’re comparing a human with an animal. You shouldn’t do it they tell me sometimes, but how do you feel about it when you don’t fulfill your rights and you see and animal, a dog, walking down the street and has its tags?
I: Had been registered—the dog or cat had been registered and the person—
RV: They knew that that dog had (__??), but they didn’t know that he had (__??) anymore than, probably, go out and look at his birth certificate, but he had been up to date with his payments to society. So that was one. Another one, if you’re enjoying what I say I’ll say another one.
I: 20:20.3 I am, very much so.
RV: Another one he says—he said, “The reason for our not being able to get together is because we are always fighting one another right here. Instead of using our arms for a better purpose, we’re always fighting each other. We’ve got to get together.” He says, “Just like this group of handicapped got together when they went to Heaven. They went to Heaven and they had a nice place to eat, but all of them had been punished on this earth and they had lost their arms. So what did they do? They had a small one there. He goes up and gets some limbs and puts some limbs and some sharp things like a fork and just connected them. They either fit each other or fit themselves and that’s what we have to do. Use our arms to help each other, not to destroy each other.” Another one—if I am beginning to remember some of his. He says—all of these attracted the public and sort of helped. He said this fellow here, St. Peter, over in the heavens had discrimination. Had a place where it was just for whites. No Mexicans allowed. Well, it comes to happen that this fellow passed away. He was very light complected, and he smuggled himself right into Heaven. There was a redneck there that didn’t like him. He knew that guy was Mexican. He didn’t have any use for Mexicans, so he was going to throw him out of there. So he went to St. Peter and told him, “St. Peter, you’ve got a Mexican right here. We’ve got to throw him out.” St. Peter said, “There are no Mexicans here.” “Oh, yeah, there is.” He said, “Prove it.” He said, “Okay, bring the band.” So they bring the band. They play a very beautiful Mexican song. And before you knew it, the guy says, “Hey! Viva Mexico! Give me my bottle of tequila.” So what did he mean? He meant that we always wanted to be right on the other side, that we should dedicate ourselves to being on this side, that we always had that feeling of drinking, that we want a bottle of tequila. Do away with it to become citizens. So, you see, he has a point. Do you follow me? I could tell you quite a good number of them. As I go along I’m remembering. So that’s the type of man that he was. He was the—I would call—the LULAC spirit of Council 60, here. Everywhere they knew him they waited for him to speak. He was a wonderful speaker. He has a large family here in Houston. Partida—that’s where we used to have our meetings over on Navigation and 74th.
I: Well, Mr. Vara, we’ve gone—
RV: Let me make you a cup of coffee.
I: Okay. Thank you very much.
(End of dictation 24:15.5)